The Temple, Atlanta’s oldest Jewish congregation, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, and it commemorated one of the most important moments in its history Tuesday, Jan. 31, with a preview and discussion of a new Alliance Theatre production, “The Temple Bombing.”
The Rev. Raphael Warnock and congregants of his Ebenezer Baptist Church joined Temple members and community patrons at the event, reminiscent of the way Atlanta came together after the bombing Oct. 12, 1958, in response to Rabbi Jacob Rothschild’s fervent opposition to segregation.
Jimmy Maize, the director and playwright of the show, and author Melissa Fay Greene, whose acclaimed “The Temple Bombing” served as the basis for the play, joined WABE-FM classic music presenter Lois Reitzes for a discussion of the history and the production.
The Temple had the idea to dramatize Greene’s book for its sesquicentennial and reached out to the Alliance, which contacted Maize, a member of the Tectonic Theater Project.
“I knew nothing about the book and felt terrified as an outsider coming in,” Maize said. “I felt a great deal of responsibility, and it weighed on me. But it was somewhat serendipitous, as I spent 14 months trying to figure out how to condense all that information into an hour-and-thirty-minute play.”
In addition to reviewing interviews, transcripts and letters, Maize reached out to Janice Rothschild Blumberg, Rabbi Rothschild’s widow, to gather information.
“It’s a story about a moment in history that feels very present right now. What do you do in the wake of great terror? You can either fight back or open your heart and accept that the scope of history is long. That’s what the congregation did, and that’s what the rabbi encouraged,” Maize said.
Audience members Jan. 31 saw snippets of the play performed by actors Todd Weeks, Caitilin O’Connell, Amari Cheatom, Danielle Deadwyler, Ann Marie Gideon and Justin Walker.
“The theater is a place for conversation, if only to understand a glimmer of interpretation. People can come together, have a discussion, and change someone’s heart and mind. The theater is a perfect vessel for that,” Maize said.
“The Temple Bombing” took five years for Greene to complete. Published in 1996, the book recounts the terror attack on The Temple, in which no one was injured, and the outpouring of support for the Jewish community from Atlanta whites and blacks in its aftermath.
“I think the response to the Temple bombing did not feel like activism. I think it was people reaching out from their congregations. In the 1950s I think there were fewer rabbis and clergy, and their voices were much louder,” Greene said. “When I wrote the book, it was about a different time period.
Southern Jews often were afraid to speak against Jim Crow laws and for the civil rights movement because of the risk of an anti-Semitic backlash. The dynamiting of The Temple ended that hesitation to speak out and became known as “the bomb that healed.”
“The community got together after the attack and decided what they were going to stand for and what are you willing to fight for,” Greene said. The old social hall has been renamed Friendship Hall.
Blumberg, who attended the preview, said: “I am thrilled for what it says about Atlanta. They are doing such a marvelous job, and I think it is very timely.”
Temple Senior Rabbi Peter Berg praised the congregation’s continuing efforts in the community. “The Temple’s actual name is the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, and that benevolence has been maintained in our community for 150 years. Whether it’s helping refugees or standing up to social injustice, we are here to ensure that the lesson of Rabbi Rothschild and rabbis before us will help us make a just society for everyone.”
(The Temple and First Presbyterian Church will hold a second behind-the-scenes preview and discussion among Maize, Greene and Reitzes at the church, 1328 Peachtree St., Midtown, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7. It’s free; you can register to be sure of a seat at alliancetheatre.org/firstpressalon.)
What: “The Temple Bombing”
When: Feb. 22 to March 12
Where: Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St., Midtown
Tickets: $10 for students, $20 to $72 for adults; alliancetheatre.org